Here we sit on the leading edge of June, which is typically when Andrew McCutchen goes into his yearly summer overdrive. But something this year doesn’t feel right. The Pirates are winning and have the second best offense (by wRC+, offense generated above league average) in all of baseball with a 118 (18% above league average). We’ve seen some wonderful offensive outputs this year so far, including a star-making performance from Gregory Polanco and an unusually solid performance from Jordy Mercer, but the one guy who has been left out of the party has been McCutchen.
His line through the first two months of the season is quite pedestrian (.256 AVG/.336 OBP/.457 SLG, 793 OPS, 115 wRC+). He has only stolen one single, solitary base this year, continuing a trendline that has been dropping since 2013’s 27 stolen bases. From Fangraphs, here’s his first two months split out in tabular form:
You can see he improved by a modicum in May, but an 805 OPS for McCutchen is nothing to write home about. But perhaps you’re just waiting for the June hot air balloon to take off. What I’m concerned about is that there may be less hot air in that balloon than in previous years. In years past, McCutchen would come out of May with a bit of a bump into June over his April stats, but not so this year as he’s remained relatively flat. Here’s a look at each of McCutchen’s OPS by months for each full season (March stats included with April, October stats included with September). You can click to embiggen:
Statistically speaking, McCutchen’s potential peak was either in 2013 (8.4 WAR, MVP award) or 2014 (career high wRC+ of 169, 3rd place MVP). Last year McCutchen was largely given a pass early on due to concerns over a potential knee injury, but then he came back with a torrid second half of the season. That run of play hid the fact that 2015 was McCutchen’s “worst best year” in this period of four straight top-5 NL MVP finishes. His wRC+ was “only” 146 and he had a somewhat pedestrian 23 HR/11 SB line.
Even more concerning is that McCutchen’s contact rates have been steadily on the decline, as well. From Fangraphs, McCutchen’s overall contact percentage is only 73.5%, continuing a consistent decline from 2013’s 80.4%. McCutchen used to be extremely strong on pitches in the strike zone (known as Z-Contact% on the chart), with his rate in 2013 at 87.6% but now dropped to 81.0%. And to complete the triumvirate of bad trendlines, his swinging strike percentage is an all-time high of 12.7%, consistently increasing since 2013’s 8.9%.
I’ve been intrigued by McCutchen since his draft day in 2005 and can distinctly remember watching him play for the Hickory Crawdads at Lake County back in 2006. I came away from that game convinced that McCutchen would be a very good player. Mind you, not the excellent, in-the-conversation-for-top-10-player-in-baseball, player he’s been the past few years. I thought he would be an excellent table-setter from the leadoff or #2 spot of the order. Something like a 15 HR/40 SB kind of guy. I didn’t envision (nor did many others) his evolution to a middle of the order force.
McCutchen is in his age-29 season. It’s no secret that baseball players typically peak between 28 and 29 and ride that until a steep decline at age-32, by our studies. This corresponds to the Pirates’ front office’s reticence to extend contracts too far past this decision age of 32. The guaranteed portion of his contract is up after 2017. If the Pirates pick up his 2018 option and keep him, rather than trade him to reload the team and/or farm on the fly, then that 2018 season will be age-31. There was some talk in the early part of the year about McCutchen and the team getting together on another extension that will keep him in the black and gold for the remainder of the career. It is starting to seem as if that may not be a great idea, especially at the term and money that McCutchen will be expecting.
None of this is to insinuate that McCutchen is a terrible player or a toxic asset. Rather, it’s to perhaps to start to manage expectations moving forward. The dynamic Andrew McCutchen that shouldered the load of offense for this team in the past four seasons may be ceding that responsibility to others. There’s a chance that he’s not even the best outfielder in his own outfield at the end of the 2016 season. And that’s OK. Eventually all stars start to slowly dim on a long enough timeline.